Vladimir Umanets, the anti-artist who defaced Rothko's Black on Maroon in Tate Modern (above), has been arrested in Worthing, that most provincial of seaside towns. His action, damaging the art of a giant, caused outrage, proving, perhaps, that Modernism rules.
Umanets wrote on the Rothko painting
VLADIMIR UMANETS 12
A POTENTIAL PIECE OF YELLOWISM
Umanets is no ordinary vandal, he's an art vandal. He practices something called Yellowism and he talks the same art bollocks as every other contemporary artist:
"Imagine that yellowism is the only context which exists and you don’t need to distinguish anymore. No art, no ordinary reality (no “aRteality” as well), just yellowism, the whole universe is like one huge yellowistic chamber, all and everything is flattened to yellow. What would you say in a such ontological situation? Will you say: “Oh my god!”?"
Umanets was quickly condemned. Chris Deacon, director of Tate Modern, said he was a person of the past. Yellowism was sniffily described as obscure. But many people will be asking, "How does this differ from any other intervention in contemporary art?"
Before his Tate Modern vandalism, Umanets would have been on all fours with the Turner Prize shortlist. Below is one of his recent interventions with fellow yellow Marcin Łodyga.
Umanets told the BBC, “I’m not a vandal. I haven’t done criminal damage (below). Art allows us to take what someone’s done and put a new message on it. There will never be another Rothko in the world ever. I would like to show such a wonderful piece in the context of yellowism.” Artists are under such pressure to be original and outrageous that they have been driven to stealing other artists' work and shitting in public. Signing your name on a Rothko seems mild in comparison.
To everyone who asks in exasperation, "What makes it art?" the answer is simple: art is just a word and if the artist, the curator and the critic agree that something is art, it's art. In this case, the artist said that it wasn't art; critic and curator agreed, so it wasn't.
Umanets crossed the line from art and outrage into property:Black on Maroon belongs to Tate and is worth tens of millions of pounds. The greater the value of the property, the greater the outrage. (Banksy is the opposite of Umanets: his graffiti is worth more than the buildings he puts it on.)
Rothko - Rothko the artist, Rothko the angry, depressed, difficult man - would have also have been outraged at this stupid act but he may not have been at one with the galleristas and the critics. Black on Maroon was one of the paintings commissioned for the restaurant of the Seagram Building, a corporate HQ. Rothko hoped they would "ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room." Eventually he decided that the restaurant was too pretentious and withdrew from the commission.
I'm not saying that Umanets is a serious artist, but he's as serious as many other postmodern artists (or anti-artists, it doesn’t make much difference). If the culture of contemporary art encourages originality and outrage, curators can’t be surprised if they are sometimes on the receiving end of the outrage.
Umanets's vandalism quickly drew an uncomfortable parallel with Duchamp's Fountain (1917) (above), a found object, a urinal, that Duchamp signed "R.Mutt" and called a "ready-made". BBC arts correspondent Will Gompertz said that Fountain was merely a urinal, but a Rothko was a Rothko.
Duchamp the Dadaist himself anticipated Umanets: "At another time, wanting to express the basic antinomy between art and 'ready-mades' I imagined a reciprocal ready-made: use a Rembrandt as an ironing board!"
There was an event in the Paris May Days of '68 when students occupying the Ecole des Beaux Arts, faced with a police raid, went out holding not shields but the priceless old masters hanging on the school walls, a reciprocal ready-made and a statement about art and private property.
Hans Richter, another Dadaist, commented on Duchamp's work, "The counterpart of Duchamp's non-art is amorality, emptying life as well as art of all its spiritual content. Here Duchamp took a logical, and therefore necessary, step which was also a fatal one. He reverses the signposts of value so that they all point into the void." That's pretty well where we are.
Postscript Umanets was jailed for two years. After serving his sentence he apologised for what he'd done.